Is this progress?

Apr 30

Is this progress?

I had a dream that I was listing to Claire Byrne’s RTÉ radio show every day this week where she interviewed politicians from across the spectrum on the imminent extinction of curlews in Ireland. I imagined I heard Fine Gael’s Patrick O’Donovan list all the townlands in his constituency where curlews could once be heard before lamenting, his voice now cracking, that the sound may never again be heard in Limerick. I heard Michael Fitzmaurice talk about his small bird-watching contractor business, with which he helps older people onto the bogs to relive the experience of the haunting cry of the near vanished bird. I heard Fianna Fáil’s (FF) Timmy Dooley well up as his fist hit the interview bench, vowing to never stop fighting to save the last remnants of the curlew’s diminishing habitat, no matter the political cost. And I heard Sinn Féin (SF) politicians quoting their nuanced and detailed biodiversity policy, in which, they proudly asserted, was rooted in the latest scientific evidence.

To cap it off, I listened, riveted, as Claire grilled Minister for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan, on the continued delays in publishing the review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and demanding answers as to why one of the last breeding sites for curlews anywhere in the country was allowed to be destroyed by fire even though it was in a protected area. The sustained way in which Claire and her RTÉ producers maintained their laser focus on the plight of the curlew throughout the week rippled across social media, while furious Fine Gael backbenchers howled at their party leader that such a fundamental part of our culture cannot be allowed to be snuffed out. I didn’t want to wake up.

This week has been a punishing one for anyone hopeful that Ireland is on the right track in dealing with our environmental problems. The main political parties have shown a watery lack of conviction for doing the right thing – ending the commercial sale of turf – that drains any optimism that they might have the spine to take actually hard decisions. The enormous fire that swept through a Special Area of Conservation in Galway this week occurred in an area where three pairs of curlews were nesting. There are only about a hundred throughout the country, down from around 5,000 in the 1980s, a collapse in population of 96%. The loss of even one nest at these very low numbers is catastrophic. Meanwhile, over a billion people are suffering a deadly heatwave in India and Pakistan that shows no sign of abating. Neither the suffering on the sub-continent nor the violent destruction of nature at home made much of a ripple in our national news.

Yet, maybe also this week saw some signs of progress. The psychology within the Fine Gael (FG) party has clearly moved on from one of denial to anger. They’re all hopping mad that they might have to actually do something on foot of the climate and biodiversity emergency; Minister O’Donovan never wastes a media opportunity to complain about environmentalists demanding that environmental rules actually be adhered to. Let’s hope that FG can move swiftly through the bargaining and depression and onto acceptance.

The inconsistencies within FF and SF have been laid bare and are even coming under media scrutiny. Both parties play a constructive role in the cross-party Oireachtas committee on climate action and recently voted in favour of carbon budgets. Both have people who are much more clued in to what is happening then some of the media soundbites let on. If these more thoughtful elements can prevail, there is no reason why we could not see cross-party support for greater investment in deep retrofitting and the elimination of fuel poverty, something that, on its own, demands urgent action.

Claire Byrne did actually devote substantial time this week to the turf wars and the sustained line of questioning from her helped to expose the inconsistencies and sometimes outright hypocrisy of the ‘do nothing’ politicians. And there were some surprising opinion pieces across the print media, as well as letters to editors, that may suggest that the wider public is moving ahead of our politicians in this area. Yes – many people have a deep and long-held attachment to the bogs, but hardly anyone has any interest in cutting turf themselves and there is growing recognition that we have to stop destroying them. Sometimes, public opinion moves quickly to overtake the politicians, allowing sudden and irreversible changes that were never thought feasible. We don’t have to look too far back in time to find examples of this shift in Irish society.

Although it has been a bruising week for those wanting action, maybe this is what progress looks like?